His music has been compared to Tom Waits, Bob Dylan and many other great singer-songwriters of the last 50 years, but Tom Freund creates a folksy blues-tinged genre all his own on his newest album, Collapsible Plans. As a fan of Tom’s music beginning with the Pleasure and Pain LP he made with Ben Harper in the early nineties, which was the first record I ever bought, I was psyched to have a chance to ask Freund about his new album, what is was like working with Jackson Browne, and his own songwriting process.
If someone listens to your music from your work in the early nineties with The Silos to your most recent album, Collapsible Plans, they see a great evolution as an artist. How do you think you have evolved as an artist?
Well, I think subject matter changes in terms of lyrics: new relationships, new scenery, new times globally on the planet etc. The biggest inspiration in my life too has been my 5-year-old kid, lots of new emotions and it even inspired a kids record called, Hug Trees. Musically, I would hope I have progressed in terms of melody and different grooves. The Silos days were a great break-in period for me, lots of touring and lots of indie cred, cult audience. I started writing and recording my own records during this time and I was influenced by all sorts of people we were listening to on the road and seeing live too at venues across America and Europe. From the Jayhawks, to Victoria Williams to The Breeders . . . I think utilizing the upright bass gave me an ability to write more unusual funky and/or jazzy grooves with vocals which wasn’t really being done by anyone.
You’re sound reminds me of Tom Waits among many other singer-songwriters. How would you describe your own sound?
I do love Tom Waits, I like that he can go from growly blues and jazz to a beautiful simple ballad with potent words. I always believe him whatever genre he is in etc. Sometimes my pork pie hat walking bass line stuff gets compared to him and I suppose I’ve heard I can have a similar “growl” – this is always taken as a compliment to me. I always say I was raised on a steady diet of Joni Mitchell and Led Zeppelin, with some Charlie Parker and some AC/DC thrown in, so I love a lot of different shades . . never saw the boundaries, it was more about what mood I was in. I feel my sound is very personal to me, I can get very Neil with my harmonica and acoustic or get more Meters jammy on the upright bass etc. but I’m hoping that what comes out is my own thing, I am pretty turned off when I go to a club and find something contrived, I can listen to polka music as long as it feels original to me.
How do you approach writing songs. Is it a process or does it just happen organically?
I always say I take it however it comes. Sometimes words come to me, sometimes an idea on the piano, bass or guitar will spark something. Sometimes I call my voicemail with an idea for a second verse, and sometimes it comes out all in one sitting. It’s great when this happens but it is rare. I think it’s organic in the sense that I tend to use what feelings are around me, environmental and people. Different places evoke different themes.
You’re new album, Collapsible Plans came out in July. What was your favorite aspect of making that album?
I feel like Collapsible Plans really feels like a time and a place, we did it rather speedily, eleven days in its entirety, recorded and mixed. It was focused and concentrated and we never looked back. Having the team in place was great, Ben producing, Danny Kalb engineering and Michael Jerome drumming etc., was something I haven’t done for an entire album since my debut record, North American Long Weekend. Also, to record in such an auspicious place as the Village was inspiring. A big highlight was Jackson Browne playing two songs with us, singing and playing piano, on “Copper Moon” and “Why Wyoming” – I am a big fan and his presence brought up a whole history of California Sound for us. I see that’s kind of the next question too. Ben was very inspiring too, his enthusiasm was contagious, so actually pushing the record button, so to speak, was done eagerly, rather than reluctantly.
You worked with some great artists on your album, among them Jackson Browne and Victoria Williams. What was it like collaborating with them and how did you come to work together?
I met Jackson a couple of times over the last three years, mostly at benefits and other outings that often called for some jamming or sitting in. There was one time in particular at a benefit for our friend Wally Ingram who has beat cancer, where I was playing “Why Wyoming” and after the first verse, I hear this awesome piano and background vocal and I soon realized it was Jackson – almost a pee-in-the-pants moment! When we were scheduled to go in to the studio, I threw it out to Ben about whether Jackson would guest on my record etc, Ben emailed him right away and he came in the next day, it was a real treat to say the least. Working out harmonies for the songs with Ben, Jackson and I in the control room was definitely a highlight and pretty surreal. Genius
The song, “Why Wyoming?” is a deeply personal track. What is the story behind it?
“Why Wyoming” came directly from a life experience that has moved me beyond any other or anyone for that matter. It was my first tour with The Silos and we were headed across the U.S. from Jackson Hole to Portland, Maine. The van hit some black ice, we rolled, and we lost our dear friend, genius musician and singer, Manny Verzosa. He was the only one who somehow slipped out and didn’t make it. We were all in complete shock and the way it felt was as if everything in my life before was erased or pointed toward that instant and the future felt like a scene from outer space. This song was inspired while going on the same highway ten years later, coming from east to west. I was driving alone, it just started coming out, and I grabbed my road guitar and drove with my knee etc.
You’re albums always include a vast array of instruments. How did you as a performer become so versatile?
I just love being inspired by different instruments. They cause me to play and think differently on each and therefore the creative sphere is enlarged, more points of your brain are being used etc. The mandolin, the piano, the double bass as well as the guitar are all engaging to me and still somewhat of a puzzle I am always trying to figure out. I also like when I see bands exchange instruments on stage, put something down and grab another. It looks cool and creates good theatre as well.
Which artists past and present would you like to work with?
I would love to work with Joni Mitchell, she has made me cry the most. Wilco would be great, I always felt like a 5th member of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, even though they didn’t know it! I’d like to jam with Bright Eyes, and I would have loved to have been schooled by Mingus. Ani Difranco would be awesome . . . oh yeah Feist too and Jim Hall…
Collapsible Plans was co-produced by your friend, Ben Harper, whom you recorded the Pleasure and Pain LP with back in the early nineties. What was it like being back in the studio with him?
It was a true comfort being in the studio with him. We had a past together and we knew we came from a similar sensibility and desire to reach people like our heros, everyone from Taj Mahal to Jackson Browne to Dylan, Young and Zep . . .and of course a steady dose of Leadbelly and Robert Johnson thrown in for good measure. I am used to having all the decisions and “how was that take” questions directed to me and it was a real treat to have Ben, whose ears and vibe I trust completely, give me the skinny from the control room. Especially on vocals, he was good with me! It was also of course very special to have him lend his background vocals or slide guitar or Mandocello on something. His studio sensibilities were right on and inspired. We gelled very well, neither of us really wanted to go home at the end of a night . . or morning.